While the Washington Bullets were taking on the Utah Jazz Tuesday night at Capital Centre, Bob Ferry, their general manager, was taking in Maryland versus Ohio State at Cole Field House.
Ferry, who does most of the team's scouting of future pros, often is drawn away from Bullets games in that pursuit, but this time he was reluctant. "Last year, I wouldn't mind going to a college game and scouting a team," he said. "Now, I really hate to go."
Ferry didn't miss a great deal, judging from Washington's performance in losing to the Jazz, but this season -- unlike years past -- such dull, uninspired efforts from the Bullets have been the exception.
"The team is fun, really fun to watch. The past couple of years, I'd come out and sit and sweat through wins and losses; now, I'm entertained," said Ferry, whose life seems to revolve around the game. Ferry was a pro player himself and has a son playing at DeMatha High School and another at Harvard.
For the Bullets, who will try against the Clippers in Los Angeles Saturday night to recoup from Thursday's 116-86 misstep against the Suns here, the infusion of excitement and talent provided by newcomers Gus Williams and Cliff Robinson was made possible by Ferry. He acquired both in separate deals on draft day in June.
If fans have been slow to notice the difference in the Bullets' play, others around the NBA have not been. After Washington beat the Los Angeles Lakers, 101-98, last Saturday, Lakers Coach Pat Riley said, "That is a championship-caliber ball club." The same thought was expressed earlier by Boston Coach K.C. Jones after his team had defeated the Bullets.
Ferry's maneuvering has made him an early favorite for his third NBA executive of the year award (he won in 1978-79 and '81-82). Of course, such honors are given after playoff series have been won or lost and championship trophies awarded. But, given the Bullets' 14-9 start -- with wins over perennial powers Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles -- talk of what it would take for Washington to be near the top has already begun.
Pat Williams, general manager of the 76ers, thinks Washington has what it takes, now. "They've already proven that they're a factor in the league; their improvement has been dramatic," he said. "They're deep, they've got size and strength . . . I don't know of anyone who would want to play them in a seven-game series."
He credits Ferry.
"You have to give him a lot of credit when you look at what they came up with after the draft," Williams said. "Gus has maybe just faded from the all-star scene and Robinson is just on the edge of getting there, but to get both players for, essentially, Ricky Sobers has to be considered a pair of marvelous trades."
Gus Williams has become the team's leading scorer at 20 points per game and Robinson has contributed 18 points and nine rebounds a game. Combined, the other three players in the deals -- Seattle's Sobers and Tim McCormick and Cleveland's Melvin Turpin -- average 27 points and nine rebounds.
Ferry says, "The way I looked at it is that we were good the last two years (and), with the talent we added, that should have made us dramatically better. Subconsciously, I think I was more worried about the team's chemistry. I could see some veterans becoming upset about not getting as many minutes or being slow to accept roles, but things have worked out."
Luck also has played a part. Forward Rick Mahorn, pushed at the start of training camp by Robinson, established his role as a starter, playing very well during Robinson's four-game absence early in the season due to the death of a brother.
Then, when Robinson returned and his performance as a reserve mandated increased playing time, Mahorn sprained an ankle, making it easy for Robinson to move into the starting lineup.
"He's always been an exciting talent. We've been interested in him for the last two years," said Ferry. Although some questioned the acquisition of Robinson, Ferry said, "I don't know how people get (bad) reputations. In Cliff's case, other than a couple of little things, everyone we spoke to before the trade -- Tom Nissalke, his coach last season, Cotton Fitzsimmons, who had him at Kansas City, and Bob MacKinnon, who had him in New Jersey -- all liked him a great deal."
Given Robinson's play, some have suggested trading Mahorn for one or more players who might put Washington over the top. Ferry thinks it's too early to talk of tinkering.
"It really takes time to determine what the team's needs will be by the end of the season," he said. "There's not a lot we can do because we're at the salary cap so it would mean trading a player for a player.
"And we haven't thought about trading Rick. He's our best defender and he's valuable to us. Really valuable."
But perhaps not as valuable as Bob Ferry has been.
The Bullets practiced at the Coliseum here in the morning before flying to Los Angeles in the early evening. The Clippers have won their last three games, and without injured Marques Johnson. The Lakers, who host the Bullets Sunday, dropped to a tie with Phoenix for the Pacific Division lead with their overtime loss to Seattle on Thursday . . . Coach Gene Shue on why Mahorn started over Robinson here: "I spoke with Cliff about it before the game and it really doesn't matter to him, starting or substituting. I would prefer having some scoring capability coming off the bench but if Rick doesn't play well, he knows he won't be in there."